There is no reason on earth why anyone should be anxious about President Carter's recent impromptu conference on national malaise at Camp David, and certainly no cause to wonder what went on. All conferences are alike. The trick is to assemble the proper mix of participants, such as those described below - as Mr. Carter did. Once these are in place, one conference is bound to be as successful as any other.
(1) The Academic Priest. The Academic Priest has replaced the Battling Priest in American folklore, and like a similar change made by the Mafia, has entered the national mainstream by appearing legitimate. He accomplished this transformation by going to graduate school (in English or philosophy) after his ordination, and then by attending conferences on such topics as "Morality and Education," where he so impressed his fellow conferees by mentioning Thomas Aquinas and Angela Davis in the same sentence that eventually a well-placed conferee made him a university president. After that, no major conference has been held without him, his value lying in an uncanny ability to synthesize what has been said by others into a single sentence that includes both Thomas Aquinas and Angela Davis, and then to top off his remarks with a delightfully salty limerick.
(2) The Wry Woman. Like the Priest, a creation of the sixties, and often an academic herself, this conferee has spent most of her off-conference hours perfecting a facial expression invaluable to the conference. The expression consists of a combination of an almost mesmerized stare coordinated with a demi-smile at one side of the mouth that might be mistaken for paralysis were it not for the quiver. This expression inevitably unnerves other conference members, to the extent that they often interrupt their own remarks to ask the Wry Woman: "I see you disagree?" or "You have found otherwise?" At that, the Woman shrugs and turns away without comment signaling the person across from her to pass a yellow writing pad.
(3) The Livid-But-Hopeful Black. A true minority member, he or she seems to exist nowhere else but at conferences, and in fact may be played by a professional actor. The key to his performance is The Sudden Shift, meaning that no matter what position the participant takes at the outset of the conference, he must take the exactly opposite position by the conference's end. Usually he goes from livid to hopeful, but the other way is acceptable. Everyone nods vigorously at whatever position he takes, and he is always asked to future conferences as long as he uses such terms as "frustration," "American dream" and "soul - in quotation marks."
(4) The Kid With A Future. Not an absolutely necessary, but a nevertheless enchanting addition to any conference, the Kid With A Future has usually just returned from a year as a Rhodes, Marshall or Fullbright scholar, and has been "discovered" at a conference on "The University and Moral Values" by the Academic Priest. The Kid says but two things at the conference - "You know, when I was at Havard I thought I had all the answers" and, "You know, I truly believe my generation can make a difference" - at which the senior conferees exchange sidelong looks of deep satisfaction.
(5) The Brahmin Jew. Taking the angry-yet-responsible approach to the topic, the Brahmin Jew almost always keynotes the conference, whether he is indispensable for his treasure trove of Yiddish humor and his undisguised contempt for California. His behaviour is ordinarily even-tempered, except when the Black is in his livid stage and claims that blacks are history's only sufferers, whereupon the Jew protests, whereupon the Black concedes the truth of the Jew's objection; or when the Kid makes his generation-difference remark, whereupon the Jew flies into a modulated rage about the privileges of young people, whereupon the Kid concedes the truth of the Jew's objection. Otherwise the Brahmin Jew is a model conference member, and is the only participant allowed to mention "decency," "freedom" and "reason," without implying anything.
(6) Mr. Goodwords. A former holder of every major government post except the presidency, Mr. G. thinks it is "high time" this topic was aired in public, and that it's "just great" to be here. Occasionally he confuses the topic under discussion with another, as he participates in four conferences simultaneously, but that's all right "because we're all in the same damn mess." Mr. G. has his eye on the Kid, thinks the Black is "terrific," wants to discuss something important with the Jew later on, has to leave early to catch a plane to Islip, and is "one hell of a guy."
(7) The Beloved Technician. Indisputably the most popular conferee, the Beloved Technician claims no analytical abilities whatever, and is merely called upon once or twice to present pertinent statistics or other objective data. After his presentation, either the Jew or the Priest observes: "Well, it's a bit disconcerting to hear from someone with the facts. . . " This is followed by raucous laugther around the table, and a hearty thank-you from the Dead Grateful (see below), at which the Beloved Technician blushes hotly.
(8) Mr. (Miss, Ms. or Mrs.) What-Am-I-Doing-Here? An essential member of any conference, this role may be assumed by any conferee, but it is best played by a poet or a fireman or anyone regarded as representing an unheard-from, though vital point of view. The What says but one thing at the conference: "As I sit here listening to you people, I ask myself: What am I doing here?" The effect of this remark is devastating. All conferees, With the possible exception of the Jew, apologize to the What directly or indirectly for a wide range of inferred offenses; an no further statement is made at the conference without reference to his "troubling question."
(9) The Dead Grateful. Or Mister Conference, as he is known from Aspen to Paris to Rio, or wherever an emergency issue arises that requires a conference of knowledgeable and dedicated citizens. An indefatigable, warm and deeply committed fellow, who is only mocked by the conferees between conferences, the Dead can do all things conference-wise, including the arrangement of subsequent conferences on topics that come up during the conference at hand. But he is best simply being grateful; grateful to the people who found the time in their busy schedules to help explore so urgent a problem; and especially grateful to the Ford, Rockefeller, Lilly, Carnegie, and National Humanities foundations, without whose vision and generosity this planet of ours would be in mighty hot water. CAPTION: Illustration, FRONT ROW: (LEFT TO RIGHT) ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR, FIVE, SIX, SEVEN, EIGHT, NINE. STANDING: TEN, ELEVEN, TWELVE, THIRTEEN, FOURTEEN, FIFTEEN, SIXTEEN, SEVENTEEN. NOT PRESENT: EIGHTEEN. By Michael Crawford for The Washington Post